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What the heck is a hellstrip and why does it matter?

by Timber Press on April 28, 2014

in Design, Gardening

A narrow roadside strip of land can be a resource-draining lawn, or it can be an oasis for wildlife. Photo: Josh McCullough

A narrow roadside strip of land can be a resource-draining lawn, or it can be an oasis for wildlife. Photo: Joshua McCullough

You may not know what it is, or what it’s called, but if you’re a homeowner, you probably have one. And chances are, you don’t know what to do with it.

It is the thin stretch of earth between the street and the sidewalk. Poor soil, public access, neighborhood pets, and zoning regulations are only some of the challenges you face in maintaining this piece of land. Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards, tackles this problem in Hellstrip Gardening, taking readers through the process of converting their “sparse, weed-ridden curbside lawn to smile-inducing scenery.” In the following post, she answers some of the most common questions homeowners have about hellstrip gardening.

In her classic book The Undaunted Garden, author and landscape designer Lauren Springer Ogden coined the term hellstrip to describe this tough-to plant area that she transformed along her street. Photo: Lauren Springer Ogden

In her classic book The Undaunted Garden, author and landscape designer Lauren Springer Ogden coined the term hellstrip to describe this tough-to plant area that she transformed along her street. Photo: Lauren Springer Ogden

What the heck is a hellstrip?
A hellstrip is that leftover piece of land between the sidewalk and the street, also known as a boulevard, tree park, verge, inferno strip, or parking strip, depending on where you live. Regardless of the name, it’s a place where lawns languish (or demand extra attention) and mature trees outcompete their companions, where plants are trampled by pedestrians and sometimes vehicles, where road salt and stormwater runoff create tough growing conditions. It may be less accessible to mower and hose than the rest of the yard. In other words, it is a cause of frustration for many gardeners, and a challenging place in which to make a thriving garden.

Raised beds make it possible to grow healthy plants curbside without the back-breaking chore of changing out contaminated soil. They protect the garden from foot traffic and make harvesting easier too. Photo: Joshua McCullough

Raised beds make it possible to grow healthy plants curbside without the back-breaking chore of changing out contaminated soil. They protect the garden from foot traffic and make harvesting easier too. Photo: Joshua McCullough

What can I plant out there that will look half decent?
Like any garden space, knowing more about site conditions and how the space  will be used leads to better plant choices. The best choices for a particular  hellstrip might be walkable groundcovers, or perennials adapted to dry shade, or  wellsuited trees and shrubs, or even edibles. But in addition to thoughtfully chosen plants, understanding how to address problems specific to a curbside location—be they mature tree roots, contaminated soil, overhead power lines, or  homeowner’s association restrictions—will clinch your chances of success. (The solutions  also apply to making gardens in small front yards, alongside driveways and alleys, and in medians and parking lots.)

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Planting low-growing species under a sign ensures that its important information is visible to drivers in Takoma Park, Maryland. Photo: Joshua McCullough

Is there a way to keep dogs from pooping on my hellstrip?
Low barrier shrubs, prickly plants, and plants taller than turfgrass can discourage foot and paw traffic. Or use earthshaping to make the terrain less level, creating either a berm or a rain garden; as a bonus, this adds microclimates in which you can try some new plants. Be sure to also include level paths to help people (and their dogs) move comfortably past or through your hellstrip garden.

Why does it matter how I garden on this tiny piece of land?
Though relatively small in size, hellstrip gardens can have a disproportionate effect on property values, visitors’ first impressions, the incidence of nearby gardens, and the general appeal of a neighborhood. They may be the best places for growing food or creating wildlife habitat. They are the last unlandscaped bits of property some gardeners possess. Conveniently sited between storm drains and chemically treated lawns, they can absorb and filter runoff, improving local water quality as they help mitigate flooding. Design your hellstrip garden well, and your entire community will reap the benefits.

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Hellstrip-Gardening-AUTHOR-credit-Mitch-Kezar-WEBEvelyn Hadden is a nationally known speaker and award-winning author of four books focused on gardening with less or no lawn, including the acclaimed Beautiful No-Mow Yards. She founded the informational website LessLawn and is a founding member of the national Lawn Reform Coalition, as well as a partner at the lauded and provocative team blog Garden Rant.

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Click image for a look inside this book:

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With Hellstrip Gardening in hand, you can finally create the paradise you want in the most unexpected of places!

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